Gov. Phil Batt’s standoff with embattled state Fish and Game commissioners comes to a head this morning.
Eleven days after asking for letters of resignation from all six commissioners, Batt has agreed to meet with them to discuss his concerns.
The meeting will take place just one hour before a noon “Sportsmen’s Rally” on the Capitol steps. Rally organizers support the commissioners in their struggle with the governor.
No Idaho governor has ever asked for the resignations of the entire commission, created by the state’s first public initiative in 1938. Batt says he may not accept the resignations, but he wants the option.
Before the 1938 initiative, the job was a political plum, often given to people with no wildlife experience. Now, commissioners are appointed by a governor to six-year terms. They hire the director for the Department of Fish and Game, and set policy for the department.
“It’s worked for 57 years,” said Dick Hansen, a commissioner and Bayview marina owner.
Batt’s move has raised some cries that the governor is trying to politicize a department intended to be autonomous.
“They’re not there to read the political winds,” said Karl Brooks, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League. “They’re there to do what’s right for the resource and hunters and anglers.”
In Boise for a routine commission meeting, the commissioners would say little about the controversy. But five of the six - Commissioner Lou Racine is traveling in Africa - said they will not comply with Batt’s request until the governor meets with them, and maybe not even then.
Batt’s criticism, several said, has consisted mainly of broadsides.
Batt spokesman Amy Kleiner said earlier this week, “There’s a common feeling that Fish and Game is out of touch with sportsmen.”
But the commission wants specifics.
“He hasn’t given us any indication at all, at this point in time, as to what’s specifically bothering him,” said Norm Guth, a game commissioner and outfitter from Salmon. “I don’t think any of us felt like submitting a resignation until we had a chance to talk with him and find out what his problems are.”
“We really do not have an understanding of what prompted this,” said Richard Meiers, a commissioner and dentist in Eagle. “We’ve heard things like ‘the department’s out of touch’ and some things like these.”
Some hunters and ranchers, however, are happy to provide specifics.
“The cattlemen have had nothing but problems with Fish and Game and (department director) Mr. (Jerry) Conley,” said Bob Sears, executive vice president of the Idaho Cattle Association.
The department has let noxious weeds take over game lands, Sears said, giving the department a reputation among ranchers as the “poorest possible neighbors.” Fish and Game is also widely perceived as being in favor of the reintroduction of wolves in Central Idaho, he said, although the wolf project is federal.
Boise bow hunter Brian Krebs charged that the commissioners don’t pay attention to public testimony, even when it’s overwhelming.
“I remember meetings where we had Fish and Game commissioners fall asleep. That should never happen,” he said. “Everyone’s afraid of the commission falling apart, but we’ve got a sick system as it is.”
Hunter Bob Nichols of Boise agreed. After a severe winter two years ago, he said, hunters in southeast Idaho urged commissioners to stop doe hunting for a year.
“We hammered on Fish and Game and the commissioners. Ninety percent of the people in the room agreed,” he said. The department opened the season for two days at the end of buck season, he said, prompting a run on does by unsuccessful buck hunters.
The department also has critics at the state capitol.
In 15 years of hunting deer, elk and bear, Rep. Jeff Alltus, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s never seen a game warden outside a roadside check point. Rep. Gordon Crow said he’s heard from many constituents who feel the department’s fees and regulations are excessive. “To a person, the hunters and fishermen I talked to last weekend thought it (asking for commissioners’ resignations) was a good idea,” Crow said.
Other hunters and groups, however, staunchly defend the department.
“I come into contact with more hunters than any of the legislators. They’re lost in the ozone. Our hunting and fishing are the envy of the United States,” said Rick Sparing of Coeur d’Alene, president of the pro-hunting Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation in Idaho.
“Jerry Conley and his staff have put the animals first,” said Sparing. “He’s done the job he was hired to do.”
Gov. Batt has denied that his request for the resignation letters necessarily means he’s trying to oust Conley. State elections records show that Conley and Commissioner Racine, of Pocatello, each donated $100 to the election campaign of Batt’s opponent, Larry EchoHawk.
Sparing feels the controversy is a ripple from the battle last year over a “training range” for U.S. Air Force bombers near the Mountain Home Air Force Base. Many legislators and then-Gov. Cecil Andrus supported the range, fearing the base would otherwise be closed. The Fish and Game Commission opposed the range, however, on the grounds that it would hurt wildlife. This fall, a federal court overturned the Air Force’s environmental impact statement, which is being rewritten.
Sparing and others say the current controversy is a tempest in a teapot orchestrated by a small group of disgruntled hunters and ranchers concerned about wildlife taking up grazing area.
“There is dissatisfaction, but it’s limited to small groups of people with specific bones to pick,” said Brooks, of the Idaho Conservation League.
Brooks cited a recent survey requested by the commission. The random poll of 500 Idaho adults concluded that 56 percent were very or somewhat satisfied with the job Fish and Game is doing. Only 19 percent were very or somewhat dissatisfied.
At a crowded hearing Wednesday night in Boise, Don Clower of Meridian urged hunters and anglers to set aside minor gripes and band together in support of the commission.
“We look like fools to the nonhunting public. And that’s who controls hunting in this state,” said Clower, state chairman of the Idaho Wildlife Council and member of several Fish and Game advisory committees.
Bowhunter Larry Velvick of Emmett said Fish and Game is doing a good job in an inherently controversial field.
“They have to work with bowhunters, rifle hunters, black powder hunters and so on,” Velvick said. “They have a very fine line to walk, and you can’t please everyone.”
The terms of Guth and Racine, who have served 12 years each as commissioner, end in April. Batt will appoint successors.
Since he’s so near the end of his term, Guth said, he probably won’t turn in a letter of resignation, regardless of the outcome of the meeting with the governor.
“I’ve never quit a job in my life,” he said.